“The government must do more…”

Update 5% Interest rate held as UK house prices continue to tumble…
Ditto NI house prices…

The Golden Mile turns into a wasteland, all those blocks of new flats lie empty, half finished building sites are abandoned, the elderly hunch over cold radiators wrapped in blankets, employment queues lengthen for the first time in decades… is this the shape of things to come?

A third of the NI population is in fuel poverty, says the Consumer Council, the highest level in the UK.
Some easing is forthcoming. 80 year olds will receive an additional £100 alongside their winter fuel payments this year, while households with those over 60 will receive an additional £50.

The state of the Northern Ireland economy, the plight of the elderly in particular, was given a rare spot in the Westminster limelight yesterday (although to a largely empty House). We were treated to the wholly unique spectacle of one set of ministers, NI First minister, and the finance, environment and culture ministers and one one ex-finance minister and DFM, demanding “something must be done” from another set of ministers in the Treasury here in London. There was a lot of handwringing but not much else on offer.

The building industry is the latest to announce deep pain throughout the UK and with inflation an equal threat, no relief is likely from lower interest rates. Everyone knows the fuel tax escalator will be frozen but the Chancellor isn’t ready yet to make the announcement. Not even loud protests from Gregory Campbell and Sammy Wilson could wring it out of them (see Hansard report).

How bad will it get? Is NI worse off than other regions?

Big questions: Should NI ministers be allowed to cut local spending and keep the savings, rather than hand them back to London?
If the powersharing Executive had tax raising powers, would they deal with the turn-down differently from the UK government?
The main text for the DUPs’ sermons was basically an analysis of soaring fuel costs by Eleanor Gill of the Consumer Council

Gregory Campbell
We have seen electricity price rises of the order of 20 per cent. in 12 months; natural gas prices have risen by 28 per cent., and home heating oil in Northern Ireland has risen by 100 per cent. in a 12-month period

and his remedy?

My party and I have been lobbying the Treasury for some time to increase personal allowances significantly. I notice that a temporary measure is being implemented to allow for the 10 per cent. debacle. That measure needs to become much more significant. A significant increase in the amount of take-home pay, particularly of the lower-paid, that is not subject to national insurance contributions or income tax will greatly assist them over the next 18 months or thereabouts, when the pressure will be greatest.

Polite stonewalling came from Jane Kennedy junior Treasury (and ex-NI) minister. The hard message is that no, nowadays, Northern Ireland is not worst off ( or uniquely deserving)

In Northern Ireland, unemployment has been halved in the past decade, with long-term unemployment down by 90 per cent. Its unemployment rates are among the lowest in the UK, and there are 100,000 more people in work than there were 11 years ago: a fact that brings me particular pleasure given my short time—one year—as Minister with responsibility for employment in Northern Ireland

DUP MPs sort of know that the days of super-special NI are gone and took care to spray around references to the “rest of the UK.”

All the same Kennedy had to admit that : Northern Ireland Electricity advises that, following the 14 per cent. tariff increases in domestic electricity prices, Northern Ireland prices will be 2.1 per cent. above those in comparator regions in Great Britain, 9 per cent. lower than the western European average and 9 per cent. lower than those of the Electricity Supply Board in the Republic of Ireland. None of that will be of comfort where prices are increasing, but it is worth the House bearing in mind the context of the price rises.

… with an extra 14% to come, interjected David Simpson DUP MP for Upper Bann.

A warning sign of deepening poverty is people borrowing from Credit Unions just to pay their bills, noticed by SDLP leader Mark Durkan.

The Consumer Council has already called for easier lending by Credit Unions

But not much hope of government “doing something big”.

Meanwhile, the price of an average white loaf went up 10p in a month.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London